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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research Special Issue - August 2003   
 'Let’s be proud of our researchers'
 Research: a vocation
 Choosing a mentor
 Momentum to move
 Drawn to the USA
 Everyday life in Japan
 Balancing the gender equation
 A boost for science
 University challenge
 Migrating to the private sphere
 National associations of students, PhDs and researchers

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Title  The incorruptible Marie

Marie Curie was the only famous person ‘who’s fame has not corrupted' – at least that was the glowing verdict of esteemed physicist Albert Einstein. RTD Info looks at the life of an exceptional woman scientist whose name has become a standard-bearer for the excellence of European research. 

Marie Curie
Marie Curie
When Maria Sklodowska was born in Warsaw in 1867, Poland was under Russian rule. In this poor and humiliated country, where even speaking the national language was a crime, the acquisition of knowledge was a means of avenging a cruel fate. A brilliant student and polyglot, Maria attended the underground university where intellectuals gave courses in secret. Her first job, however, was as a governess, which she took in order to support her older sister who was studying medicine in Paris. Poland’s universities did not admit women at the time.

In 1892, Maria became Marie and also moved to France. She soon made up for lost time, gaining a degree in physics and then in mathematics before meeting Pierre Curie. The physicist did not invite her out to dinner or a dance, but asked her to assist him in his work on a doctorate. They married in 1895 and had a daughter, Irene, in 1897.

Marie was now 30 years old. She and Pierre were both interested in the recent discovery by Henri Becquerel of a mysterious invisible radiation emitted by uranium. In a basic workshop, they built a complex apparatus able to detect these emissions for which they invented the term 'radioactivity'. They faced a daunting task, involving the analysis of a vast number of metal compounds and minerals. On 12 April 1898, in an presentation to the Academy of Sciences, Marie Curie announced that 'two uranium minerals, uraninite (uranium oxide) and chalcolite (uranyl copper phosphate) are much more active than uranium itself. This is a remarkable fact and suggests that these minerals may contain a much more active element than uranium.'   

Glowing discoveries
Four months later, the Curies isolated an unknown metal – which they named polonium – whose activity is 400 times greater than that of uranium. Shortly afterwards, they made the key discovery of radium whose rays are a truly spectacular 1.4 million times more radioactive than uranium and are visible in the form of a luminous glow. This metal soon proved to be an invaluable tool in exploring the microscopic structure of matter. It was not long before doctors at the St Louis Hospital in Paris began to use it in the treatment of cancer. 

Marie had a good year in 1903. She obtained her doctorate in June. In December, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to the Curies and Henri Becquerel for discovering natural radioactivity. But disaster struck in 1906 when Pierre was tragically killed in a street accident involving a horse-drawn carriage. 'Between his conception of things and mine, there was, despite the difference in our country of origin, a surprising kinship,' she wrote. 

But science continued. Known as the 'illustrious widow', Marie Curie became the first woman to teach at the Sorbonne. In 1911, she was awarded a second Nobel Prize, in chemistry this time, for determining the atomic weight of radium and studying its properties.    

The war effort
The Institute of Radium at Paris University, built according to Marie Curie's instructions, had scarcely been inaugurated when the First World War broke out in 1914. Research now focused on a new front. To speed up the process of diagnosis, small vehicles equipped with X-ray equipment – known as petites Curies or 'small Curies' – were dispatched to the trenches so as to be able to treat and operate on patients more quickly.

When peace returned, the Institute started up again. It taught the science of radioactivity and trained researchers from far and wide. Irene became a research assistant to her mother. The latter, who had never sought personal gain from her discoveries, found herself having to devote considerable energy to finding the necessary funds to purchase the few grams of radium needed for the Institute's research.

She later witnessed the discovery of artificial radiation by Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie. She died in 1934 from leukaemia, brought on by her years of exposure to radiation – just the year before her daughter and son-in-law were awarded the Nobel Prize. It was 59 years later that Pierre and Marie Curie were reburied in the Pantheon, the final resting place which France reserves for its greatest citizens.